This past summer, I read with interest the story involving the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” and Ben Affleck. For those of you who may have missed it, I’ll summarize briefly.
The show, hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., helps people, mostly celebrities, find out about their ancestors by utilizing genealogists to follow paper trails, thereby allowing the show’s guest and the audience to find out more about his or her family history.
The show was temporarily suspended when network heads felt the show’s decision makers violated the network standards for an episode featuring Affleck in 2014 by covering up the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors owned 24 slaves after Affleck asked such information be omitted.
Gates, who’s not only the show’s host but also its executive producer, issued an apology for yielding to Affleck’s request and regretted forcing PBS to defend the integrity of the network’s programming.
Affleck’s request to suppress his not-so-great-great-great grandfather’s treating people as chattel would probably never have been discovered had it not been for the Sony hacked emails that were put online last spring by the whistleblower WikiLeaks.
Now, I certainly can understand Affleck’s reluctance to having such information about one of his ancestors revealed. However, some ancestral skeletons in the old closet certainly shouldn’t have caused such an overreaction to request censoring the material.
As soon as I heard about the story, I instantly thought about the classroom I’d left behind a decade ago. Some of my favorite moments in teaching occurred when I was able to take a current event and meld it with a lesson with content from long ago in an effort to show that while certainly the times have changed, often human nature hasn’t.
The Affleck story would have fit so very well into one of my literature lessons on Nathaniel Hawthorne. In covering Hawthorne’s biographical information, I always made a point to include the fact that the famous author who penned such classics as “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables” actually changed his family name of Hathorne by slipping in a “w.” Biographers tell us Hawthorne did that as a means to distance himself from an infamous ancestor, John Hathorne, one of the most predominant and unyielding judges of the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 and a man responsible for both the persecution and execution of several victims.
In my lesson, of course, I stressed that either excessive shame or excessive pride for anything one’s ancestors did is ludicrous, since whatever one’s ancestors did or didn’t do had nothing to do with who someone is today.
Certainly, that was something Affleck should have been able to discern in the case of his slave-owning ancestor rather than asking Gates to compromise the show by omitting the material.
The ancestor Affleck never knew who owned those slaves hasn’t impacted the film work he’s done in any way any more than fellow actor Woody Harrelson’s work has been by a much less-distant link to an infamous ancestor. You see, prior to his death in 2007, Harrelson’s father Charles was serving a double-life sentence in a maximum-security prison for murdering a federal judge.
Who we come from doesn’t define us. We define ourselves by our own actions. That’s the take-away from all of this. Certainly this summer’s Affleck-“Finding Your Roots” story would have gone with me back into the classroom had the story occurred back when matters of the classroom mattered so much to me. My hope is that all those still toiling away seated at the big desks in our classrooms are finding their teachable moments.